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News - 4 September 2005

Retail continues its downward trend

Brighton is not alone in suffering another poor summer season. Retailers across the nation are suffering and fear business is set to get worse before it gets better.

According to the CBI's Quarterly Distributive Trades Survey one in five retailers (20%) say the overall business outlook - including sales volume, price, cost and supply issues - will deteriorate over the next quarter compared to just over a tenth (13%) who say it will improve.

Over the last seven years retailers have been generally optimistic in spite of the downward trend. It seems that now they are beginning to accept that things are not going to get better in spite of the recent drop in interest rates.

The volume of sales in August compared to a year ago was down for almost half of retailers (45%) while only a quarter (27%) reported a rise. This is despite heavy price discounting and longer than normal summer sales and follows similar figures for June and July.

The underlying annual sales trend, measured by the three month moving average, which cancels out short-term blips, is the weakest in the 22-year history of the survey. The gloom looks set to continue into next month at least, with a third (34%) believing volume will be worse than 12 months ago and just 19% forecasting an increase.

By sector, sales of DIY and hardware items, furniture, flooring and carpeting, white goods and big ticket electrical products like plasma screen televisions continue to be hit hard. This is a reflection of the subdued housing market and tightening of belts among consumers, and a stark contrast to last summer when most enjoyed strong year-on-year growth.

Sales of confectionery, tobacco and newspapers and magazines were also lower than 12 months ago, continuing an underlying decline although sales of groceries, particularly specialist foods, were up (positive balances of 20% and 45% respectively).

With conditions so tough, prices have been steeply cut by many retailers with two fifths (38%) reporting prices were lower this month than a year ago; one fifth (18%) registered a rise. The London bombings do not appear to have had much of an impact on the national picture, by volume of sales, although this was already poor in June.

The volume of orders to suppliers has also decreased, with 39% saying they are down year-on-year compared to 27% saying they are up.

With sales down and prices down there have been job losses: a third of retailers (35%) had fewer employees this year than a year ago, and only a quarter (26%) had more - a balance of minus nine, which is expected to grow to minus 11 next month.

The depressing picture continues into the motor trade, which traditionally enjoys an upturn at this time of year with the appearance of the new registration plates on dealers' forecourts.

But more than half (51%) fear sales will be down in September compared to a year ago, maintaining the recent trend. Just a fifth (20%) say they will rise, a balance of minus 31 per cent. Prices stabilised in August after increasing throughout 2004.

This depressed picture though is not matched in wholesaling where there is still long-term growth in sales (albeit at a rate which has been slowing down) and overall business expectations are optimistic for a second successive quarter (a balance of plus 25 per cent).

Wholesale volumes continue to be above average for the time of year and this is expected to remain the case in September. Employment grew by its fastest rate for 15 years in the year to August (a plus 38 per cent balance) and this too is expected to continue (plus 36 per cent) next month.

Against this backdrop prices went up (a balance of plus 14 per cent), and this is expected to remain the case in September, at plus 13 per cent. For the first time this year wholesalers also intend greater capital expenditure than in the previous 12 months, a healthy balance of plus 30 per cent.

John Longworth, Executive Director of Asda and Chairman of the CBI's DTS Panel, said:

"Conditions in August continued to be very tough for retailers and many fear the outlook is going to get worse before it improves, despite the recent interest rate cut.

"Some held earlier and longer summer sales despite margins already being very tight but there has been little sign in this survey of a response from consumers.

"The housing market slowdown continues to have a negative effect on many retailers, for example DIY and furniture chains, who have previously enjoyed the spin-off from the boom times."

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